I love color. In design, this is one of my favorite areas and things to focus on, because it's fun, and it's creative, and color really allows you to separate yourself or your product from everyone else. However, just like any other business differentiator, if not done with strategy, color quickly becomes your downfall. As one of the foremost experts on picking colors that actually sell in mass market retail, I am going to share with you the important lessons I've learned over the past 26-years.

Let's Start With A Story About Color

At 24-years old, one of my first groundbreaking projects was to create a product line of colors, materials, and finishes for Herman Miller, for the redesign of the entire textile line.  This was a five hundred plus color line, in the footsteps of a fabulous and iconic designer who I looked up to. But I knew it was necessary because the line had outdated, office spaces had changed a lot, the tech boom was welcoming/pleading for new materials, and a lot of the SKU's were not selling. So I had to narrow it down to under three hundred SKU's, settling on what to keep, what to get rid of, and what to add. I was intimidated because I knew, even that fresh in my career, the implications of bad color choices carried.

Color is intimidating because:

  1. It carries a lot of weight and decides marketability.
  2. It decides the cost implications with options/SKU's.
  3. It's personal and there are so many preferences to consider.
  4. If you don't do your forecasting or research well, you are taking huge risks.

Lesson #1: Create A Method That Works

Using the 80/20 rule, stating that twenty percent of your line will make up eighty percent of your volume, was one of my first lessons at Herman Miller. I've adapted this to be the 80/20 Color Rule. Which means, you need a mix of variety and diverse offerings, to allow your twenty percent to become the favorites and the go-to's. I also learned that less isn't always more. In this case, it seems like, if you were to get rid of the eighty percent low-selling slack, that might translate into more sales, but that isn't how it works. Usually, this minimalist approach, actually leads to less sales.

Takeaway: Don't sell yourself short, literally, by eliminating an editorial or business opportunity to stand out. Color can be a great tool in your toolkit- if you know how to use it.

Lesson #2: Data Without Research Is Dangerous.

With the Herman Miller redesign, how could I be sure that the colors I chose would be the ones to sell? Data. The good kind though, not the skewed snapshot kind. Results are only as good as the data you begin with, and if your data is flawed, missing something, has a gap.... It won't do what you need it to do, and you will miss the potential opportunity. I often use the stapler on my desk as an example of this. My stapler is black, as I'm sure many of yours are too. But I know, if I wanted to know what stapler colors actually sell besides black, my chances of finding that might be more during back to school time. Seasonal sales, events, and holidays will impact data and create incorrect forecasting.

Takeaway: You don't need a snapshot, you need year-round and year-over year data.

Lesson #3: Collaborative Processes Matter

Involve everyone you can in the color design process. If you can include the buyer, do that. Ask them what colors they like, what designs they would buy. Consider all of the decision makers, and the potential purchasers. If it's a gift item, think about each gift-giver who may purchase your item, and include as many of these people in your process as possible. Do a market survey. Collaboration is key.

Takeaway: For every player involved along the way, try to involve them if you can. 

In the end, going back to my story from above, I cut three hundred SKU's, instead of two hundred, and added one hundred new, putting in place a process I now call Cut + Clean + Create. The lessons I learned on that first color journey have stayed with me all this time. Now, you can apply them too, to maximize your potential success when choosing which colors to take to the market. 

Published on: May 23, 2018